Concept art showing global disinformation.

Retaliatory Attack on Christian Church in Pakistan?

On March 18 2019, just days after a right-wing extremist traveled from Australia to Christchurch, New Zealand to murder fifty people at two mosques during Friday prayers, British conservative commentator Theodora Dickinson posted a video of a burning building on Twitter with the following commentary:

In response to the New Zealand mosque attacks, Islamists have burned down a Christian church in Pakistan.

Why is this not being shown on @BBCNews?! ????

— Theodora Dickinson (@TheaDickinson) March 18, 2019

It’s not clear exactly where Dickinson found the video and description, but it may have come from a pro-Narendra Modi account that posted the video with the following caption:

To be verified.

Pakistan: Because of the attack on the mosques in #Christchurch (#NewZealand)! The usual Islamists have apparently burnt down a Christian church in a Pakistani city.

Despite the “To be verified” disclaimer, the video’s description had inflammatory language that, if the commenters were anything to go by, did its job. It was quickly decoupled from any disclaimer and raced around social media to further stoke international tensions.

However, the video cannot be verified for the same reason that BBC is not showing it: because the description is entirely untrue. As India fact-checking site describes in detail, the video originates not from “Islamists” burning a church in Pakistan, but a group of people burning a church in Egypt — in 2013:

Running a reverse image search on video grabs from the post led BOOM to pages which carried news reports about a similar incident in Sohag city of Egypt in 2013 when a Coptic church was attacked was attacked by a mob.

We diversified our search with the help of different sets of keywords and found videos of the incident on YouTube as well.

The YouTube page of (MidEast Christian News) MCNDirect, a news agency in Middle East, shared a similar footage on August 29, 2013. The caption with the video reads: MCN shows scenes of burning and demolition of Sohag Diocese, with crowds breaking the cross.

Mob attacks on churches and religious institutions had intensified in Egypt after August 14, 2013 as the country witnessed a political upheaval in the aftermath of the downfall of the then Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood had held Christians responsible for the ouster of Morsi.

This is backed up by timestamped videos and stories showing the same scenes that were clearly from August 2013, not March 2019.

Increased tensions between India and Pakistan in early 2019 have led to a virtual war of propaganda and disinformation that has begun to spill over into international discussions and taken the two countries to the brink of major armed conflict, highlighting the ever-increasing need for fact-checking all over the world as state powers eagerly vie for ascendancy in literal wars of words:

India and Pakistan have fought wars previously and have been engaged in a decades-long territorial dispute over the Kashmir Valley. But this conflict is the first one to take place since social media became ubiquitous.

Fact-checkers in India say that the deluge of misinformation around tensions between India and Pakistan that has flooded the internet is “unprecedented.” Also unusual was the fact that official handles run by the Pakistan army shared two videos (one was later deleted) of the Indian pilot captured on Pakistani soil. The deleted video showed the pilot injured and being escorted away from mobs by Pakistan’s army soon after his plane crashed — it was released before the Indian government confirmed that the pilot was now a prisoner of war, and is still being shared by right-wing Indian WhatsApp groups. The second video, which was shared by the Pakistan military’s official spokesperson soon after, had a palliative effect on revenge-thirsty Indian Twitter: After seeing the Indian pilot praising Pakistani officers for being “thorough gentlemen” and drinking their tea, people online slowly began to favor the hashtag #SayNoToWar, as opposed to #SayYesToWar, which had been trending before.

“This is a situation that taps into all the fault lines in the country,” said Karen Rebelo, an editor at Boom, Facebook’s first fact-checking partner in India. “There’s politics, religion, enemy nations, and a surge of nationalism in this situation. It’s the perfect storm.”

Dickinson later deleted her tweet, but the videos continue to spread unchecked on social media.